Saturday, March 11, 2006

Common Look and Feel – Maybe the Time Has Come!

In the next couple of years, most smart federal web managers are going to start thinking about redesigning their sites, in preparation for a new administration. You remember what we all went through when the Bush administration came on the scene – right? No matter which party wins, the new administration will want its own fresh look and feel. Maybe this is an opportunity to do something that would be great for our audiences and could save money across government. Maybe - instead of doing your redesign alone - it’s time to work with your colleagues across government to find more common design elements that you could implement across government. Maybe it’s time for a common look and feel.

Let’s think this through. We already know, from usability testing, that the public responds well to common terms and common placement of content elements. We embraced that notion when the ICGI issued its recommendations for the content of federal public websites in June 2004. The more design consistency we can achieve, the easier it will be for citizens to use government sites. We also know that the public doesn’t know – and doesn’t care to know – how the government is organized. It’s not really important to them to know which agency is providing the information and services they want. It’s only important that they find it. So from the customers’ point of view, a common look and feel makes good sense.

Look at it from the practical side. How many of you can afford to go through redesigns every couple of years? I know from my own experience just how costly a redesign is. It’s not just the cost of hiring the graphic artists to do the design – you’ve also got to do usability testing. If you could pool your resources and do a single basic design, think how much you (and the taxpayers!) would save.

Is this an unprecedented risk that could fail? Well, look what Canada has done. Most of their government agencies use the same basic design – topics down the left and a common tool bar at the top. The public only needs to learn one navigation system to use any of the Canadian agency sites. It helps them get in, get what they want, and get out quickly and efficiently. That’s great customer service.

Would it be easy? Heck no. Even in agencies that already have everyone on a common template, it would mean a major effort. But if you’re already planning to do a redesign anyway – and, again, you probably should be - then why not give this some thought?

So let’s see… It would be better for the customers. It would save money across government. It’s not unprecedented – Canada has proven the concept. What’s the downside? Well, you do lose agency distinction. And you lose some of your own autonomy and ability to be creative. I know – that hurts. But we have to remember that it’s not about us – it’s about those we serve. If we can serve better by serving together, then shouldn’t we?

You have some time to think this through. Why not sit down together and see just exactly what must be different and what could be the same, in terms of design. I’ll bet you’ll find there’s more in that second column than you thought there would be. Maybe you could agree to a few common elements – topics down the left and a common toolbar, at least.

This could be a very good time to take that next big step in the evolution of U.S. government websites and start looking for a common look and feel.

Related links

ICGI report
Use of Common Content, Placement and Terminology (from webcontent.gov)
Why Have All These Government Websites When We’ve Got Google?

1 comment:

Gwynne said...

In general, I agree, but I would offere that some of the assumptions in this article should be tested. Like, is it actually "better" for users to have a common look and feel? Who are these users? I expect that different sites have different users, different goals, different services. So what would the commonality be? Logo? Color? How does this apply to interactive applications--where our government should be going? NARA is very different from IRS is very different from FBI is very differnt from travel.state.gov is very different from SSA.

I don't disagree that much of the protection of individual sites is parochial. I think that a closer analysis on the who and the what are next steps.